SANTA FE, N.M. (KRQE) – After a series of issues surrounding the state’s Department of Workforce Solutions, Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham announced plans to overhaul the department. It comes as the department looks for a new director and after an LFC report claims the department paid $250 million on overpayments.
On Friday, the governor acknowledged the problems the department has faced throughout the pandemic and said she’s taking steps to fix it.
“Here we are a year and a half later, it’s still hard to make a phone call. It’s still hard to know whether or not, you’re going to be penalized for an overpayment and what you do,” Gov. Lujan Grisham said. “There is an issue with overpayments and fraud. That’s a fact.”
The state is creating a multi-agency ‘Fraud Specialist Team’ to strengthen investigations against fraudulent unemployment claims. The recent LFC report estimates about $133 million of the $250 million in overpayments were fraudulent claims.
“We’re going to find you, we’re going to hold you accountable and that investigation has already started, will be ongoing until we’ve done everything we can,” Gov. Lujan Grisham said during a press conference.
Another major problem during the pandemic was New Mexicans simply couldn’t get through to anyone when calling Workforce Solutions. “It shouldn’t be the status quo anywhere. And I refuse to let it be the status quo anywhere in state government,” the governor said.
The state is hiring 110 new employees for the call center, about 50 of them are already hired and trained. The state said with the larger staff of about 380 people, the call center will be able to handle about 7,000 calls a day. It’s been seeing an average of about 6,000 calls a day.
The state has also contracted with New Mexico IT solutions Firm, Abba Technologies, to conduct an independent analysis on how the department is working. The analysis is expected to take three to six months. Recommendations on systematic, long-term changes will then be given to the governor.
“Obviously there are things working in DWS, no question about it. Or else nobody would’ve received any of the benefits that they were eligible for. But there are obviously some systemic problems that are not related to a particular person or a particular aspect of the agency, but systemically how do we make sure the agency can be resilient from an average, non-pandemic year to hopefully never again a pandemic year,” said Mark Fidel, president, and co-founder of RiskSense who working with Abba Technologies on the analysis.
The Republican Party of New Mexico is speaking out against the governor’s announcement saying in part, in a statement, the governor’s changes are “too little too late.” When asked at a press conference if the changes are coming too late as unemployment numbers trend down, the governor said they did make efforts like adding people to the call center earlier on, but during the peak of the pandemic, had to adjust to the need of the moment.
“The second we would add them, onboard, catch up, there would be another significant issue and we’d just have to move you,” the governor said. “This time, because of where we are and because it’s really serious, I have the ability to put everyone and stabilize this effort. So it’s not a short term and then move, short term and then move.”
Over the course of the pandemic, the state said the department has given nearly $4 billion in unemployment benefits to New Mexicans. As of June 10, 2021, about 77,000 New Mexicans were receiving unemployment. That’s down from about 150,000 in June of 2020.